Friday, July 02, 2010

"I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."

If I had stopped with my public school education, my impression of the Civil Rights Movement would be that it was largely led and coordinated by males, particularly Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I know now, however, that African-American women had a huge influence on and played an essential role in the Movement. There are a number of women that stand out, such as Septima Clark and Ella Baker, but a particularly fascinating and influential woman that I read about in college is Fannie Lou Hamer.

Hamer was born in 1917 and lived all of her life in the Mississippi Delta, a particularly harsh place for African-Americans to live during this time period due to widespread poverty and white racism and oppression. She was the daughter of sharecroppers and starting at a very young age helped her family by picking cotton. Hamer lived in extreme poverty most of her life, had a limited education, and experienced first hand many of the hardships that were suffered by African-Americans in the Delta.

But it wasn't until about middle age that Hamer became active in the Civil Rights Movement. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) held a meeting at a church near her home in 1962. It wasn't until this time that she knew that African-Americans had the right to vote. She vowed to get registered and began encouraging others to do the same. Like a good majority of African-Americans trying to get registered to vote, she faced significant obstacles including a test (obscure questions from the Mississippi Constitution, which she failed twice), poll taxes, and harassment by city and state officials and white citizens.

Hamer became a field secretary with SNCC organizing voter registration drives and developing programs to help economically disadvantaged African Americans. Due to her role and activism she faced beatings, a particularly brutal one after being imprisoned for entering a whites-only bus station restaurant to eat, continuous threats and ridicule, and even a bombing. Despite it all, Hamer persisted and was one of the founding members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964 created to challenge Mississippi's all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention. It was here at the DNC that Hamer made a famous televised speech in which she asks, "Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings?" This speech is at least partly responsible for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that made it illegal to deny any U.S. citizen the right to vote. (Listen to the speech or read the transcript.)

Hamer remained politically active until her death in 1977 and helped found a number of cooperatives including the Freedom Farm Cooperative, "a project through which 5,000 people came to grow their own food and collectively own 680 acres of land." Her achievements and activism are no doubt remarkable, but it was also Hamer herself - a female, uneducated, middle aged, sharecropper - that breaks the mold when we consider the persistent view of the Civil Rights Movement as having been lead by male, articulate, educated, religious and/or student leaders. In fact, it is precisely her position as none of those things that made her the effective, beloved activist she was.

There are many amazing memoirs and biographies out there about female African American civil rights workers and activists. Come down to the library and pick one up (or place a hold!), or browse the links below to learn more about Fannie Lou Hamer.

All quotes come from the biographical essays that may be accessed via APL's Biography Resource Center database w/ your library card number.


Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
A famous memoir about Moody's life growing up poor and Black in Mississippi. In her college years she became active in SNCC and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality).

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer

Freedom's Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970

From the Mississippi Delta: A Memoir
by Endesha Ida Mae Holland
A story of a woman also from the Mississippi Delta and active in SNCC after her younger years were spent in and out of prison and prostitution.

Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir
by Dorothy Height
Height was a well-known activist and president of the National Council of Negro Women.

Ready From Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement by Septima Clark
Clark seems relatively unknown to most, but she was a key person in the Civil Rights Movement believing education was essential to political empowerment. She founded numerous "citizenship schools" in which African Americans were taught literacy and organized to get them registered to vote - a concept that spread throughout the U.S. and is considered responsible for getting thousands of African Americans registered.

This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer was known for her singing of gospel music at rallies, protests, and marches. It was common to hear a lot of gospel music at events like this, but it has been remarked that Hamer had a particular gift for bringing people together in song: according to Julian Bond, "She sang. She led freedom songs. She didn't have a perfect voice, but she could make you want to sing, make you want to join with her."

Singing Go Tell It On the Mountain

Singing Wade in the Water

Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs


An Oral History With Fannie Lou Hamer

Includes the audio file and complete transcript

Fannie Lou Hamer on the roots of her activism

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